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Family Dynamics

Family Estrangement Is More Than a Hashtag

Personal Perspective: Going no contact isn’t trendy, it’s survival.

Anete Lusina / Pexels
Source: Anete Lusina / Pexels

Scroll social media or peruse self-help bookshelves and you’ll notice that family estrangement is attracting attention. There are viral videos and hashtags championing the decision to go no contact. But with increased visibility comes more scrutiny: Is estrangement just a fad? Are more parents and adult children becoming estranged than in years past? Are people cutting off family members too quickly or thoughtlessly?

From my perspective, estrangement is never an easy decision. Even when it’s the only path forward, walking that path can feel excruciating. As I wrote in my book, Forces of Nature, distancing myself from my family of origin felt like traveling along a corkscrew: As I pulled away, I had to revisit earlier traumas and confront my biggest fears.

Cutting contact was a last resort and a crucial decision, not only for my own mental health, but for the health and safety of my children, who were at risk of suffering the same harm I had experienced. In the end, it was what we all needed to survive (and thrive).

Still, cycle-breaking made me unpopular. When I first spoke up about the abuse I experienced and made the difficult choice to cut contact with my mother, I faced questions and pushback from others. I was told that I was selfish, I was overreacting, hurting my mother’s feelings, throwing off the equilibrium of the family. My therapist at the time explained that in the landscape of my family of origin, I was the one who stood up in the boat. Everyone else either screamed at me to sit down or wanted to shove me overboard.

Is estrangement trendy or are we just more aware?

There seems to be a cultural shift happening as people prioritize their mental health and redefine what family might look like. Some experts suggest that while estrangement has always been a phenomenon in families, it’s only recently being acknowledged publicly and analyzed in a significant way.

Trendy or not, I believe setting boundaries and distancing yourself from people who have harmed you can be some of the healthiest moves a person can make. If you feel skeptical, consider: Would someone walk away from a family member they felt safe with?

Combating shame and stigma

In my experience, estranged people want to be approached with more curiosity and less judgment. We ask that you be kind to those of us who have had to step away from systems that cause harm. For many, there are stories that would easily explain our need for distance, but they’re often too painful to share.

Family estrangement may fly in the face of what we’re taught as children: Honor your parents. Family is forever. Blood is thicker than water. Yet, people don’t usually choose estrangement out of rebellion, resentment, or a lack of forgiveness. They do it for their safety and emotional well-being – and the well-being of generations that will come after. Another piece of wisdom a therapist gave me: You can forgive a thief, but that doesn’t mean you have to give them a spare key to your house.

The next time you scroll social media, remember that behind every hashtag is a human story – or in this case, millions of estrangement stories – each one as unique as the person living it.

More from Gina DeMillo Wagner
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